A dozen years before the Pussycat Dolls slut-stomped their way through a version of “Jai Ho” and a half-decade before M.I.A. and Panjabi MC perked American ears to the notion of South Asian club music, Rekha Malhotra was keeping crowds dancing into the wee hours with her Basement Bhangra Thursdays at S.O.B.’s in New York. While the notion of combining dhol rhythms, hip-hop swagger and yard-style dancehall partying wasn’t an altogether new concept in the late ’90s – Punjabi clubs in West London had been gestating this contemporary take on bhangra for a while – DJ Rekha was one of the first to bring the style to U.S. audiences. However, as Rekha says, Basement Bhangra wasn’t devised as some sort of compartmentalized ethnic party.
“One question that often creeps up is, ‘When you got started with the club nights, was it less diverse? Was it more South Asian [attendees] and then the word got out?’” says Rekha. “But, really, there was a New York club party, and everyone there was one to two degrees away from me, which meant they were activists or artists or whatever. And then the South Asians from the ’burbs started to find out. At some point, a year or two after we started, it exploded to become more South Asian and now it’s somewhere in the middle.
“I think there’s an international movement of dance music that pulls from different styles and, for lack of a better word, ‘ethnic’ beats,” Rekha continues. “Even what you hear in the more niche-y electronica subsets like dubstep, they’re really just about the low end, about the bass, about the drums … and that’s what people respond to on the dance floor.”
That attention to the needs of the dance floor is what helped make Basement Bhangra nights a success story in the New York club scene. Rekha compiled a mix CD last year that captured some of the nights’ energy, although she considers the disc more of a snapshot than a definitive document.
“The reason I never made a CD is because I’m so much about the live experience. … To make a CD is just one 60-minute possibility,” says Rekha.
Still, the album did expose a much larger audience to the percussive power of bhangra and allowed DJ Rekha to take her show on the road. A live Rekha set doesn’t focus solely on bhangra; she mixes in touches of filmi music (she also puts on occasional “Bollywood Disco” nights in New York), full-blown hip-hop and whatever else strikes her fancy.
“When I play out, I definitely mix it up a lot more. It depends on the audience. I’ve got my bag of tricks and I see what the vibe is,” says Rekha.
What will she pull from her bag of tricks for the Orlando gig?
“There’s a huge Caribbean South Asian community in Florida, but I don’t know if that’s really my audience. I play some Bollywood stuff, but I would not be worthy to play a chutney set … my chutney music is outdated. I think when I go to any city, there’s a hope that some South Asians will hear about it and know me and come out, but I think the goal is really to get anyone who is into good music and who likes to dance.”